Down a Dark "Alley"

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Before computers and pop-culture fetishizing, there was a different breed of geek. Even more loathed and degraded than his modern ancestor, this geek was a literal freak — a sideshow act — a man willing to growl like an animal and bite the heads off chickens for his daily fifth of cheap booze. Along with confidence men, carnies and cops, the geek is just one of the grimy characters of William Lindsay Gresham's cult 1946 novel "Nightmare Alley," now turned into a gripping graphic novel by the veteran comix artist known as Spain.

Not so much a yarn as a boiled leather strap, "Nightmare Alley" (Fantagraphics Books; 134 pp.; $14.95) tells the story of Stanton Carlisle, who we first meet as an ambitious assistant to a phony medium on the traveling midway. As drawn by Spain, Stanton has the good looks and blank expression of a department store mannequin, and the same sense of morals. Coldy ambitious and hotly lustful, he learns the medium's secrets and begins a "two-a-day" mentalist vaudeville act with Molly, a virginal looker with a thing for daddy. Never satisfied, Stanton tricks up a house and puts on a minister's outfit, turning himself into a successful "spiritualist." Soon he meets a wealthy industrialist who's "overboard on the spook dodge. He's living on dream street," and willing shell out big bucks to square his conscience with a dead girl. But Stan's downfall comes when he meets Lilith, a comely shrink who's too smart for his cons. Taking him as a lover, she makes him paint her toenails and tortures him with psychobabble. Because it's a "goddamn stinking slaughterhouse of a world," Stan eventually finds himself hooked on hooch, hitching boxcars and heading back to the carny.

Well, here is the real stuff. Not a neo-noir homage, but the genuine india-ink original, "Nightmare Alley" combines the creepy world of Tod Browning's movie, "Freaks" with the relentless cynicism of a Jim Thompson novel. As adapted by Spain, "Nightmare" pulls you into a secret world, with its own colorful language. "You can go back to carny and find another kootch show. But I want to have big dough," is a typical line, delivered when Molly hesitates on trying out the spiritualist "dodge." Throughout the book you get a privileged inside look at the tricks of the trade: the hand-offs, the cold-readings, the radio transmitters in the jacket. It's a rare treat to go behind the curtain, and it keeps you reading for more.

The geek goes at it

Who better than Manuel "Spain" Rodriguez at bringing a vivid cast of freaks, grifters, and phonies to their graphic realization? As one of the original coterie of "Zap" artists, Spain has been creating left-leaning comix about outcasts and the exploited since the mid-sixties. Part of a comix generation that made its reputation by breaking taboos, Spain's instinct for sensationalism — never have a smooth bust when you can have erect nipples — also perfectly match the pulp, exploitation origins of "Nightmare Alley." Drawing as he always has, with thick, black lines, Spain's technique graphically represents the dark tones of the work. Sailor Martin, the nasty tattooed man, doesn't have eyes, just two black slashes under a jutting brow.

Spain's adaptation of "Nightmare Alley," stands out as the best crime comix I've seen in a long time. Given that the original book is now out of print (except for its inclusion in a crime novel anthology) and the 1947 movie adaptation starring Tyrone Power has never been put on tape or DVD, this book may also be the only way you get to appreciate a deservedly cult work. This is no "Hey! Rube!" Go check it out.

"Nightmare Alley" can be found at better comicbook stores, and regular bookstores.